Disability makes women even more vulnerable to sexual abuse and restricts them from challenging it

Farida (name changed) remembers feeling very scared to go to school, but was not sure why. Since she was five, she had a speech therapist at school who used to work to “improve” her speech. Years later, Farida remembers that it was the way he used to touch her throat – an integral part of speech therapy – that would make her uneasy. He would sexually molest her and then threaten her with dire consequences if she told anyone about it.

Farida felt that her inability to speak (and hear) was the cause of her sexual abuse. For years, she went through feelings of anger, guilt and isolation. Then she joined The Deaf Way Foundation, an organisation committed to educating, empowering and advocating for the deaf community in India.

Violence against disabled women has an added dimension. It is a silent act because, in a majority of cases, the woman either does not realise she is a victim or does not talk about the violation(s) she has faced. Often, even if it is communicated, people do not believe them. In most cases the perpetrators are not brought to book. According to a study, women with disabilities (WwDs) experience higher rates of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and the duration of their abuse was longer than women without disabilities.

Some years ago Dr Sruti Mohapatra and Mihir Mohanty conducted a study in Odisha, ‘Abuse and Activity Limitation: A Study on Domestic Violence Against Disabled Women in Orissa, India'. It covered 729 physically and mentally challenged women and girls between the age groups of 18 and 40 years in 12 districts.

The authors describe two levels of violence against WwDs: One, of a lack of visibility and the other, a lack of opportunity in relation to men with disabilities. Disabled women thus face double discrimination. The first is that women-friendly laws and services exclude them. Second, society puts obstacles in their way preventing them from performing roles of responsibility and realising themselves as women, mothers and companions.

Simran (name changed) shared how she was sexually harassed while working in a private company and how she was uncomfortable with one of her colleagues. Once she firmly explained to her colleague (in sign) that she was not interested in making their relationship more intimate, he left her alone. She found out later that other women had gone through similar experiences.

Given the enormity of the problem, The Deafway Foundation decided to organise a training of trainers' workshop, in which I participated as a trainer. Sessions on various issues were conducted in sign language. Over months, the participants discussed gender, violence against women and sexuality. They also underwent step-by-step training to improve their facilitation skills.

We would introduce new concepts and wait for the flurry of reactions. Their hands, eyes and bodies would convey their thoughts and feelings. No one hesitated to express their disagreement or ask questions.

I got a taste of how we, the ‘hearing' people, keep the non-hearing on the fringes of society.

We debated terms like strength and weakness, disempowerment and power, courage and cowardice. Everyone shared personal instances of violence; we would talk about how violence affects the way women think and act. They have to build their own strength, take help from each other to be able to cope and believe in themselves.

Women have to act to change society's ideas of who they are and what they are capable of doing. WwDs have to work doubly hard to communicate to and shake up a largely uncaring world.

(Women's Feature Service)